June 5, 1998
I thought I had reviewed A PERFECT MURDER before, but for some reason it didn’t come up when I searched for it, so I watched it again. Then when I searched for my DIAL M FOR MURDER review to refresh my memory I did find a review of A PERFECT MURDER from five years ago. But that review wasn’t that good so fuck that review. This is the first time I’ve reviewed it in my opinion.
A PERFECT MURDER is the first of two Viggo-Mortensen-co-starring Hitchcock remakes that came out in 1998. The other is Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO, which is not a summer movie, but is worth bringing up as a comparison. While that was a complete anomaly – an audience-provoking experiment infused with bright colors and stylized costuming – this loose, updated remake of DIAL M FOR MURDER is an expensive, high gloss star vehicle. Remember? They used to make R-rated thrillers that were A-movies, sometimes by top directors. Michael Douglas’s movie before this was David Fincher’s THE GAME. For co-star Gwyneth Paltrow it was part of a prolific period – after being in SE7EN and then really blowing up with EMMA she starred in five 1998 movies: SLIDING DOORS, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, HUSH, this, and best picture winner SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE.
Douglas plays Steven Taylor, a thinly veiled take off on Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, and/or a totally unrelated character who is a rich hedge fund guy like you’d expect Michael Douglas to play. His wife Emily (Paltrow) is richer than him, though, and apparently not satisfied with her life with him, or at least not satisfied to prevent her from sneaking off to a loft in Greenpoint to sleep with rugged artist dude David (Viggo Mortensen, EASTERN PROMISES).
At a party, Emily makes the dumb move of introducing David to her husband as her artist acquaintance whose work he should check out. And he does. He shows up at the art space and confronts him. Not only has he figured out what we already know, but also something we didn’t: this guy is a con man with a history of hooking up with rich women, taking their money and disappearing. That’s not to say Steven is the good guy here. He makes an offer to not turn David in, but instead pay him to kill Emily.
There’s a whole plan for how to get past security. Has to look like a break-in, but David leaves a key. Trouble is
1) when this ski-masked intruder attacks her in the kitchen she manages to fatally stab him in the neck
2) When they take off the mask it’s not David underneath! He couldn’t stomach it and paid some other guy to do it. (Romantic.)
So we got a classical noir type situation here – watching a bad person’s desperate struggle to swim his way out of the ever deepening lake of shit he created for himself by doing the wrong thing. I like that the good guy in this scenario is not innocent. She cheated on her husband and they don’t give her an excuse like he’s abusive or something. He just doesn’t understand her or listen to her enough. But she realizes she’s wrong and plans to admit the affair before the shit goes sour. After the attack she clearly doesn’t trust him, and we’re put in the position of hoping the guy trying to rip her off will screw over her husband.
In DIAL M MURDER, you remember, the wife is cheating, but the husband lures in a different guy, some dude he knew in college, to blackmail into killing her. And then she ends up getting sentenced to death for killing that guy and the boyfriend (a true crime writer) tries to devise a way to save her, so he’s kind of the hero. David-the-artist-conman-boyfriend is a totally different character, a sort of villainous victim, and I think Mortensen gives him more depth than another actor would’ve.
I wasn’t surprised to read that Mortensen really did some of the paintings in the movie. I was wondering while watching it if the little camera he plays with while meeting Steven on the ferry was one of his own. I don’t know how widely known this is, but since before he was even a Returning King Viggo was a total art dude. He’s a painter, photographer and poet, he started a small press and has recorded more than a dozen experimental albums. As an example, later in ’98 he released Recent Forgeries, a book collecting “writings, paintings, collages, assemblages, found objects, and photographs that point to the fluidity of meaning of a world in flux,” with a CD of music and spoken word and an introduction by Dennis Hopper.
He’d been acting in movies since WITNESS in ’85, and of course we know he’d been in LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III and AMERICAN YAKUZA, plus the artier stuff like THE REFLECTING SKIN and THE INDIAN RUNNER. But it was in the mid-’90s that he started to make a mark in big mainstream movies, and especially G.I. JANE in ’97. In ’98 he only did two movies, and whatever you think of Van Sant’s PSYCHO, you can’t tell me he wasn’t good in it – mostly because you probly don’t remember that he even was in it. Well, I’m here to inform you that he was good in it. And just a couple movies after that he was in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.
This is a good role for him because it combines his dangerous-hunk vibe with his sensitive-rugged-guy one. The latter is not a front. We know from the miniature collage portrait he carries that his feelings for Emily are real, even after he hired that guy to kill her. Mortensen makes this conflict interesting. I consider him the M.V.P. of the movie.
A PERFECT MURDER is adapted by Patrick Smith Kelly (DONT’ SAY A WORD, another thriller starring Douglas). Though it obviously borrows the “guy blackmails somebody into murdering his cheating wife but she kills the guy and he has to make sure nobody finds out he was involved [and gave the guy a key to the apartment]” premise, it’s pretty easy to mentally separate this from DIAL M FOR MURDER since it abandons the almost-entirely-set-in-the-apartment intimacy of the original play and movie. You could say Smith Kelly updates it a little (or adjusts it to Douglas’s screen persona) by adding a whole thing about his shady financial dealings.
It’s by no means a transcendent suspense thriller of the ’90s, but I don’t think it’s a cheesy one either. And it’s a handsome production. The cinematographer is Dariusz Wolski, who shot THE CROW, CRIMSON TIDE, DARK CITY, the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies and PROMETHEUS, to name a few, so it’s a pretty good looking movie, as Davis’s often are. As with his Chicago movies, he finds some good New York locations that capture a strong sense of place without feeling exactly like every other movie shot there.
Obviously I will always think of Davis as the director of CODE OF SILENCE, ABOVE THE LAW and UNDER SIEGE, but to most of the world he’s the director of THE FUGITIVE. Unfortunately after that best-picture-nominated achievement in ’93 he sort of fell off with STEAL BIG STEAL LITTLE (1995) and CHAIN REACTION (1996), so this fairly successful and at-least-not-hated movie was kind of a comeback for him. It’s not gonna be one of the highlights of the summer, but I don’t regret watching it again.
Anyway it seems there was a Canadian heavy metal band called A Perfect Murder that formed in 2000 so as you can see this is a very influential movie especially in Montreal.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.